A landmark amendment forcing the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, “to issue guidance” to explain how officials can continue to enforce the region’s draconian Victorian-era abortion law has been passed by MPs.
MPs in Westminster voted by 207 to 117 to impose their will, a matter normally reserved for Stormont, arguing that the abortion ban was incompatible with human rights on an amendment proposed by Labour’s Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn.
The victory is largely symbolic as it is not clear how much impact the amendment would have on existing practice. The NHS does not provide abortions in Northern Ireland, forcing women who live there to travel to Great Britain to obtain terminations.
An earlier, more clear-cut amendment put forward by the two Labour MPs had to be withdrawn because the clerks at the House of Commons said it was outside the scope of the Northern Ireland bill that the government was putting through.
The Democratic Unionist party (DUP) has long opposed any loosening of the law, although nationalist party Sinn Féin has relaxed its stance after Ireland voted in favour of abortion in a referendum earlier this year.
Abortion is normally subject to a free vote, but the law has been devolved in Northern Ireland for a century and the matter is theoretically reserved for Stormont, although the Northern Ireland assembly has not sat since the beginning of 2017.
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Read moreCreasy had complained before the vote that Theresa May has been reluctant to intervene on the issue in Northern Ireland because of her reliance on the DUP to give her government a Commons majority.
“The absence of an assembly cannot be used as an excuse to ignore the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland … The question is whether the prime minister’s more concerned about the DUP than the damage human rights abuses do,” she said.
A supreme court ruling in June had indicated that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were incompatible with human rights legislation, but judges declined to issue a final ruling because the case that had been brought before them did not involve an individual victim.
While England, Scotland and Wales have their own laws that legalise terminations, in Northern Ireland, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act still applies, which criminalises any woman seeking an abortion or anybody helping them obtain one.
Creasy and McGinn’s amendment had the support of Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, half a dozen Conservatives including Heidi Allen and Tom Tugendhat, plus Norman Lamb for the Liberal Democrats and the Green party MP, Caroline Lucas.
On Tuesday, MPs voted to repeal the law via a separate backbench bill. The free vote on a 10-minute rule bill, put forward by Labour’s Diana Johnson, passed by 208 votes to 123, with one cabinet minister, Penny Mordaunt, voting in favour.
However, the Johnson bill will not become law because the government has signalled that it will not give it parliamentary time – while Wednesday’s amendment to the Northern Ireland bill could become law because it is attached to government legislation.
On Tuesday, Johnson’s bill was opposed by Fiona Bruce, a Conservative MP, who said: “Whatever members’ differing views on abortion, if we respect devolution, we should vote against this motion today.”
Bruce also argued that it was untimely, given that Brexit negotiations meant it was “such a sensitive time in relations between the Westminster government and the Northern Ireland administration”.